FirefightersIt was 75 years ago this year – on the night of 10th/11th May, 1941 – that the German Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented attacked on London, an event that has since become known as the ‘Longest Night’ (it’s also been referred to as ‘The Hardest Night’).

Air raid sirens echoed across the city as the first bombs fells at about 11pm and by the following morning, some 1,436 Londoners had been killed and more than that number injured while more than 11,000 houses had been destroyed along and landmark buildings including the Palace of Westminster (the Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed and the roof of Westminster Hall was set alight), Waterloo Station, the British Museum and the Old Bailey were, in some cases substantially, damaged.

The Royal Air Force Museum records that some 571 sorties were flown by German air crews over the course of the night and morning, dropping 711 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 86,000 incendiaries. The planes were helped in their mission – ordered in retaliation for RAF bombings of German cities – by the full moon reflecting off the river below.

The London Fire Brigade recorded more than 2,100 fires in the city and together these caused more than 700 acres of the urban environment, more than double that of the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the costs of the destruction were also estimated at more than double that of the Great Fire – some £20 million).

Fighter Command sent some 326 aircraft into the fight that night, not all of them over London, and, according to the RAF Museum, the Luftwaffe officially lost 12 aircraft (although others put the figure at more than 30).

By the time the all-clear siren sounded just before 6am on 11th May, it was clear the raid – which turned out to be the last major raid of The Blitz – had been the most damaging ever undertaken upon the city.

Along with the landmarks mentioned above, other prominent buildings which suffered in the attack include Westminster Abbey, St Clement Danes (the official chapel of the Royal Air Force, it was rebuilt but still bears the scars of the attack), and the Queen’s Hall.

Pictured above is a statue of firefighters in action in London during the Blitz, taken from the National Firefighters Memorial near St Paul’s Cathedral – for more on that, see our earlier post here.

For more on The Longest Night, see Gavin Mortimer’s The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz: The Worst Night of the London Blitz.

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The final in our series looking at London ‘battlefields’, this week we take a look at the so-called Battle of London, the air war fought over London during World War II which, along with the bombing of other British cities, is best known by the phrase The Blitz (it forms part of the greater Battle of Britain).

Blitz-memorialTaking place from the afternoon of 7th September, 1940, until May, 1941, the Blitz saw London sustain repeated attacks from the German Luftwaffe, most notably between 7th September and mid November when the city was bombed on every night bar one.

The night of 7th September, the first night of the Blitz (a short form of ‘Blitzkrieg’ – German for ‘lightning war’), was among the worst – with more than 450 killed and 1,300 injured as wave after wave of bombers attacked the city. Another 412 were killed the following night.

One of the most notorious raids took place on 29th December when  incendiary bombs dropped on the City of London starting what has been called the Second Great Fire of London. Around a third of the city was destroyed, including more than 30 guild halls and 19 churches, 16 which had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The city was only attacked sporadically in the early months of 1941 but the night of the last major raid of the Blitz – that of 10th May, a night subsequently known as The Longest Night – saw the highest casualties of any night with almost 1,500 people reportedly killed.

The Blitz killed almost 30,000 civilian in London, and destroyed more than a million homes with the worst hit districts poorer areas like the East End.

The battle wasn’t one-sided – the RAF fought the Luftwaffe in the skies and did have some wins – on 15th September (a day known as Battle of Britain Day), for example, they shot down some 60 aircraft attacking London for the loss of less than 30 British fighters.

It was this victory which led the Germans to reduce the number of daylight attacks in favour of night-time raids which, until the launch of the RAF’s night-time fighters in 1941, meant they met little effective resistance. This included that of ground defences – throughout December, 1940, it’s said that anti-aircraft fire only brought down 10 enemy planes.

Yet, the Blitz did not lead to a German victory. For the Nazi regime, the purpose of the constant bombing of London (and other cities) was aimed at sapping the morale of its residents to the extent that they would eventually be forced to beg for peace. But the plan failed and Londoners, digging deep, proved their mettle in the face of fear.

Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in  Civil Defence working in a range of jobs – everything from air raid shelter wardens to rescue and demolition teams – and worked alongside firefighters whose numbers were supplemented by an auxiliary service. Naturally all suffered a high level of casualties.

As the weeks passed, the carnage mounted in terms of the loss of and damage to life, destruction of property and psychological toll. And yet the Londoners – sheltering Underground, most famously in the tunnels of the Tube – survived and, as had been the case after the first Great Fire of London, the ruined city was eventually rebuilt.

There are numerous Blitz-related memorials in London, many related to specific bombings. But among the most prominent are the National Firefighters Memorial, located opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, which pays tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives in the war (as well as in peacetime), and a riverside memorial in Wapping honouring civilians of East London killed in the Blitz.

People-of-London

Amid all the grand war-related memorials of London, this rather humble memorial sitting outside the north transept of St Paul’s Cathedral in St Paul’s Churchyard can easily be overlooked. 

Known as the Memorial to the Londoners killed in World War II Bombardments or simply as the ‘People of London’ memorial as it’s called on the sculptor’s website, it commemorates the 30,000 Londoners who were killed during the Blitz  (not to be confused with the National Firefighters’ Memorial, known informally to many as the Blitz Memorial, which sits opposite the cathedral’s south transept and commemorates firefighters who died during the Blitz).

People-of-London---smallThe round memorial was carved from a three tonne block of Irish limestone and is set into paving (it was initially very shiny).

The gilded inscription which runs around the outside reads “Remember before God the people of London 1939-1945” while on top, written in a spiral, is an inscription written by Sir Edward Marsh – “In war resolution, in defeat defiance, in victory magnanimity, in peace goodwill”, the text of which was used by Sir Winston Churchill in the frontispiece to his history, The Second World War.

Unveiled by the Queen Mother on 11th May, 1999, the memorial is the work of Richard Kindersley, whose other memorials include the Commonwealth Memorial on Constitution Hill.

Kindersley writes on his website, that the “position of the memorial adjacent to St Paul’s is most appropriate, as most people will remember the dramatic photograph of the Cathedral dome of the taken during a devastating attack in 1941.”

It was paid for by public funds raised following an appeal in the Evening Standard newspaper, launched in connection with the 50th anniversary of VE Day.

Today – 7th September – marks 70 years since the start of the Blitz when, between 7th September 1940 and 10th May 1941, more than 43,000 civilians were killed, at least 140,000 injured and an estimated million homes across the UK suffered damage or destruction as a result of air raids.

London, which suffered 57 consecutive nights of attacks starting on 7th September, features numerous memorials relating to World War II including the National Firefighters Memorial located on the Jubilee Walkway, just south of St Paul’s in the City. It depicts firefighters in action during the Blitz and serves as a tribute to those who fought against the fires caused by the raids as well as commemorating the lives of all firefighters who have died while on active duty. For more on the memorial, see www.firefightersmemorial.co.uk.

For a series of interesting reconstructed photos showing the difference between London during the Blitz and now, visit Sky News here. Or for more on the history of the Blitz, see the dedicated BBC website here. And for a terrific graphic showing fire brigade callouts in London on the first day of the Blitz, see The Guardian’s datablog.

Meanwhile, the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden has today opened a new exhibition, Under Attack, which explores the role public transport played during World War II in three cities – London and Coventry – both of which are marking 70 years since the start of the Blitz, and Dresden in Germany which is marking the 65th anniversary of the Dresden Firestorm. The exhibition, developed in conjunction with Coventry Transport Museum and the Verkehrsmuseum Dresden, runs until 31st March next year. For more details, visit www.ltmuseum.co.uk.